When building a house, it’s easy to assume that the builder and architect will account for what’s needed. You’ll surely have the desired number of bathrooms and a roof that keeps you dry. There are also things that are unique to you and your lifestyle. Daily rituals and long-standing annoyances could be improved with a bit of forethought, but only if they are communicated to the team. This is an important lesson we learned in building Flattop: Be diligent in accounting for ways the house can be designed to improve your day-to-day life. Communicate what you want and the pros will find ways to make it work.
Once the house was mostly complete, attention turned to the fencing. We shared our ideas for a small fenced area that aligned with the side of our garage. Gates flank it on the short sides of the rectangle. One gate leads to the driveway. The other leads to a larger fenced area that wraps around the house and contains our garden and back deck.
This system of fences was designed with great intention and not without a bit of confusion. You could see the questions wash over the builders as they tried to understand what we wanted. “So you want a fenced area that leads to a second fenced area? With a gate in between?” Yes. Exactly. But only four feet high.
They built it exactly as we wanted and today, the system of gates and fences is emblematic of our efforts in making the house work specifically for our lifestyle. Builders and architects can work wonders, but they won’t live in the house. They won’t use it every day. They don’t have access to the daily rituals and events that fill the day. That information is the domain of the homeowner, who must explain what is needed, a few times, to make sure the house fits with these routines.
We have dogs. We wanted Flattop to be a house that minimized the impact of PNW wet dogs and dirty feet on our nice new floors. We imagined waking up on a wet December morning and needing to let the dogs out to do their business. We could let them into the large garden area and watch them return happy and covered in mulchy mud. Or, we could leash them and walk in the rain, careful to avoid muddy areas. Or, we could design the house for this daily routine. We chose design. This meant thinking ahead about how to handle rainy days and wet dogs.
When we were in the guesthouse, we built a small enclosure that connected to the entry. In the winter rain, the dogs could go out while we stayed dry on the porch. I used a nearby pile of wood chips to cover the surface and the system worked. The dogs still got wet, but their paws remained mostly clean. This was our inspiration. Could we do the same at Flattop? Instead of releasing them into the garden, could we create a clean place for them to use every day?
Soon, a plan came together. On the garage side of the house, a door opens to the exterior. We decided to enclose it and make it a dog run that would be our primary way to let them out. Like the guesthouse, we could stay warm and dry by the door while they take care of business. The cedar chips keep their feet clean and naturally repel pests. The gates in the dog run only swing inward so the dogs can’t push them open. As an added bonus, their waste is contained in a small area for easy pickup.
If the dogs do end up muddy from walks or garden play, we have that covered, too. We added a groomer-style dog shower to the garage that makes cleaning dirty paws a breeze. It also serves as a great washbasin for crabbing gear and garden veggies.
The system is almost perfect, but there is one minor hiccup. Maybe, our oldest dog at seven years, has developed a distaste for rain and wet ground. If she looks outside and sees rain, she’ll resist going out at all. When she does venture out, she carefully steps along the wall where the overhang keeps the ground dry. As much as I want to think of our dogs as PNW rain dogs, Maybe is still too civilized. We won’t tell the other dogs on the island.
In September of 2017, two years before the first issue of Ready for Rain, we purchased property on Orcas Island. Starting then, the idea of eventually building a new house on the island started to dominate our thoughts. What would we build? What could we build?
Having been through the Hunter House renovation, we knew John Stoeck would be our architect and clearly remember the first time we asked him about the idea. It was game day and we were in downtown Seattle to pre-party before the soccer match, in full team colors. On a whim, we decided to check out a new bar at the top of a nearby hotel called The Nest. When we arrived, it seemed like a little bit of L.A. had been transported to the rooftop and everyone was looking fabulous; a bit too fabulous for Seattle, if you ask me. Too many white pants. Our casual Sounders jerseys stood out and I was proud to be a representative.
After ordering a couple of over-priced drinks, I called John to share the news that our offer had been accepted and we would be the new owners of a yurt-shaped house on Orcas Island. It was time to get to work. John, of course, was also excited.
At the time, we could dream. Working on house plans doesn’t mean you have to build a house right away. It means you’d like to, some day, when you can. Our intention from the beginning was to take our time and get it right. Happiness lives in anticipation after all.
Today, 3.5 years later, we are living in the house and thinking about all that has happened and how it started. Once John had a chance to visit the site, our work with him began with a creative brief, which is a summary of our ideas for the future house. It was the important first step for thinking through the house.
Below I’ve provided an abbreviated version of the creative brief we sent John that will serve to set the stage. Then, over the next couple of weeks, I’ll give you a tour of the finished product.
The Creative Brief
We imagine a house that is built to accommodate 6 people comfortably and sleep up to 10 if needed. 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath, 2000 sq. ft. or so.
We like the idea of a single story house with flat, straight lines. We’d like a simple, and timeless design. We don’t need trendy design flourishes. Instead, we’d rather focus on practicality and thoughtful elegance. We want the house to be efficient and as self-sufficient as possible. Solar may be an option.
It should be built for the PNW and feel at home among big evergreens, madronas, ferns, and rain. We love the idea of the charred siding, known as Shou Sugi Ban or Yakisugi.
The focus of the house will be the view and maximizing the view and feel of privacy, both inside and out. This is also true for noise, which travels easily to neighbors. The great room and office must have views of the water, others are negotiable.
The west facing exterior has been a big focus. We envision a roof that overhangs the deck, blocking sun in the summer and provides shelter in the winter. We’d like to have a place to be outside on cool days with heaters in the ceiling, perhaps. We imagine a grill and a fire bowl, or fireplace. We love the idea of being able to look at the water from the great room without seeing a railing.
The interior should be warm and cozy, probably with wood ceilings and floors. We imagine sloped ceilings that may be higher than normal, but no vaulted ceilings. Bi-fold doors open the great room to the patio. Further, we like the idea of the house being divided into two sections that are connected with a hallway.
We will need a garage with room for two normal cars, a small workshop, trash area and storage. We do not currently plan to have a cottage with the garage. If possible, we’d like to have a covered walkway to the house or some other connection.
The property is wooded and we like the idea of the big trees being integrated into the design if it makes sense. The trees may be well lit at night.
We will need to think about placement of a deer fence and dog run that connects to the house. We’d like to outline a few of the places to have a garden and possibly solar panels.
I had mostly forgotten about the creative brief until recently. I dug it out of email on a whim and couldn’t believe my eyes. Our initial vision for the house was mostly unchanged over the years of design and construction. There were thousands of decisions on how to make it happen, but the big ideas held from the earliest stages.
Lately we’ve had a few people ask about the genesis of the house and what was on our mind when we first envisioned what it could be. How do you approach building a new house from scratch? A few examples…
We purchased the property partly because of the west-facing view over the water and usable land surrounding it. Few things mattered more than optimizing the house for the view. It’s a factor that trumps things like sun exposure and wind direction. This was an easy call. The house needed to be aligned north-south with lots of windows facing west.
We lived in the Yurt for about 18 months and had the opportunity to notice the environment and the weather. In the evenings, for example, the wind often blew over the Yurt westward toward the water. After seeing this day after day, we started to consider how to use the wind to our advantage. Maybe we could create a calm outdoor space by using the roof as a shield. In the summer, we could flush warm air out of the house by opening windows on both east and west sides.
We both have an odd relationship with the sun. For us, it’s too bright and we wanted a house that could use its warming power, but also allow for outdoor spaces that shelter us from UV rays and glare. Living in the Yurt helped us appreciate how the sun moves across days and seasons. Our TV, for example, faced south in the Yurt, and the glare in the afternoons was pretty reliable. So, in this house it should face north, so the sun never shines on the screen.
I was surprised by the difference in temperature between Seattle and Orcas. Orcas is often 10 degrees chillier and that makes a difference in how long it feels comfortable to be outside. This observation pushed into the direction of trying to extend the seasons. We asked: how can we enjoy the deck earlier in the Spring and later in the Fall? This led to the idea of a covered outdoor room with heat sources like a fireplace.
I have a fascination with northwest architecture and always envisioned a contemporary house with a timeless design. That can be a challenge, so we looked for inspiration from materials that have stood the test of time, like charred siding that’s been a standard in Japan for generations. John arrived at the site with books about Japanese architecture and pointed out specific designs we could use.
Because the house is mostly isolated, we didn’t think much about fitting into a neighborhood’s style. However, we did spend time looking at island architecture. When we were looking for property in 2017, we drove up Buck Mountain and I saw a new house that had a feature I’d never seen. The house stood in two parts, connected by a suspended glass hallway. I loved that idea and it served as one of the inspirations for the footprint of this house.
We always considered this our forever house and as so many of our neighbors advised, we thought that single-story living would be best for growing older. Our property could support it, so that was an easy decision.
Island living comes with a healthy dose of self-sufficiency. The property came with a well, septic system, fiber internet, and electricity. If we added a propane tank, solar panels and batteries, we could comfortably approach self-suffiency. This included reserving a place for a productive vegetable garden and eventually a greenhouse.
This is only the beginning of all we considered but I hope it provides a look at what we were thinking in the beginning. Next week, I’ll share photos of where these ideas led.
I couldn’t sit still. I paced around the Yurt as my mind raced. We had anticipated this moment for over a year and it was finally happening. Drew, the builder, was about to arrive with his estimate for what the new house might cost. This was the number, the one piece of data that had the potential to change our direction. It could help us kick off the project in a matter of weeks, or be a setback with the potential to ruin our plans.
In preparing for this moment, we had completed a few basic calculations in our heads. Often, construction estimates come down to cost per square foot, and are highly dependent on location. The conventional wisdom is that it can cost up to 20% more to build on the island, in part, because of transportation costs.
Based on the square footage in our plans, we had a number in our heads. Our architect, John, also had a number that was higher than ours, but not by much.
We met at 1pm on a Tuesday and I could feel the pressure build as the meeting got closer. In the best case scenario, we could build the new house with the funds from selling our house in Seattle. It would be like trading one for the other.
Drew arrived and immediately got down to business. He handed out copies of his estimate in the form of a multi-page document full of line item details for nearly every part of the project. In the weeks leading up to this moment, Drew had shared the building plans with his sub-contractors and their estimates were now rolled up into his overall document. There were specific numbers for framing, electrical, fireplace, labor and everything else.
As soon as the document slid into my view, I hesitated. I wondered to myself if it would be rude to immediately turn to the final page and view the bottom line. In my mind, everything else was details. I asked, “Is it OK if we go ahead and take a look at the bottom line?” Drew said, “Sure…” and I pulled back the final page. There at the bottom was the number we had anticipated for over a year. And I couldn’t believe my eyes. I tried to play it cool and laid the closed document on the table and picked it up again, like some kind of analog reboot. Surely, I had looked at the wrong page. Maybe I missed a decimal place. I looked again. Nope, the same number was there and it was orders of magnitude more than we expected.
As I tried to stay composed, my heart raced and sank at the same time. It felt like the dream was suddenly dead and I was looking at the culprit on the page in front of me. Any thoughts of trading homes were squashed and we were now in “is this even possible?” territory.
I looked over to Sachi who appeared calm and collected, as always. In her mind, the number was bigger than expected, but made of individual parts that all had their own numbers. Her first reaction was to study the estimate, line-by-line and try to figure out what caused the number to be so high.
Leading up to the meeting, we had brainstormed questions for Drew and I had them on my phone. After taking a cursory look at the estimate, Sachi prompted me to go through the questions and my immediate reaction was to look at the questions and think to myself, “It’s all moot. None of these questions matter anymore. This is a waste of time.” In my mind, that list of questions about the project might as well have been a lunch order. Until we addressed the bottom line staring us all in the face, nothing else mattered.
For the first time, we were confronted with the reality that we’d spent over a year planning a project that we might never see happen. None of us expected to see such a big number, including Drew, and we all felt the shock. It was heartbreaking.
Eventually, I asked the obvious question: “If you were in our shoes, what would you change to bring down costs?” Drew was prepared for this question and had a list of the most costly parts of the design. As a group, we went through his list and documented a handful of other items that could be changed or delayed. For example, solar panels could wait. We could use a heat pump instead of expensive in-floor hydronic heating.
A big part of the cost was in the design. We had designed the best house we could imagine and those choices, from a high level, were more expensive than we understood. These were things integrated into every part of the house, like insulation, concrete, and steel. Reducing them wasn’t as easy as choosing a different building material. Making the house more affordable could mean rethinking and possibly reducing the entire design.
For example, we imagined having a roof that hung over the deck without obstructing the view. To make this work, the roof overhang was designed to be a cantilever that didn’t need supporting posts. On paper, it was obviously the best way to design the west side of the house.
Unfortunately, we were dealing with more than just the roof design. The location of the house, the one thing that could not change, meant that our engineers had to account for weather and specifically, wind. The structure needed to withstand 125 knot (144 mph) winds. That nice cantilevered roof overhang, in the right conditions, could become a sail and rip the roof off the house. Keeping it in place required steel beams in the roof and other supports that raised that overall number.
After an hour of discussion, I could feel the tension. We had come so close to making it all happen. We had a property, a builder, a place to stay during construction, a full set of plans and a building permit. And with the number now in place, it was up to us. Was the project going to happen or not? We agreed to take some time to decide our next move. As Drew left the Yurt, I could tell he wasn’t betting on us moving forward.
John’s ferry to the mainland didn’t leave for a couple of hours and we had time to talk through the options. He made a list of items to discuss with the engineers who made decisions about the house’s structure. He said he had ideas for what he called “value engineering”, which means engineering with a priority on lowering costs. This was a new term to me and I wondered why there is any other kind.
Throughout these discussions, I was still reeling and feeling exhausted. I wanted to go into the bedroom, get under the covers and hide. As Sachi drove John to the ferry terminal and I had some time alone to run through what we could do. Selling our house in Seattle wouldn’t be enough and we had to adapt to the idea that might include serious debt.
I knew that Sachi would have a positive spin on the situation. Unlike me, she is not easily discouraged. Upon her return, I saw someone who was full of ideas for how to proceed. In her view, this was simply a challenge to overcome. We’d have to make sacrifices, take risks, work harder and devote more time, but the dream was still in reach. Her confidence inspired me and I needed it.
As I tossed and turned in bed that night, I thought about all the times we’d taken risks in the past. We always seemed to plan projects just beyond the edge of comfort and usually found ways to make them work. It felt like we couldn’t let the number stand in our way.
I imagined looking back from ten years in the future and wondering how I’d feel about the risks and potential of today. Would we regret the sacrifices and costs it would require to build the house we designed? Or, would we regret making changes to the design to make it more affordable? There were no easy answers, but one thing seemed clear: having come so far and there had to be a way to make it work.
I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.